The Virginia War Memorial Carillon

Reflecting the patriotic fervor of the time, the Virginia War Memorial Carillon is the sole structure erected by the Commonwealth of Virginia to memorialize the “patriotism and valor of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and women from Virginia who served in World War I.

With the cessation of hostilities at the declaration of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 and the eventual approval of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the citizens of the United States sought to memorialize the efforts of the armed services in World War I. The American Battle Monuments Commission was formed in 1923, Arlington Cemetery was enlarged and improved and the separate states began to commemorate their war dead through the construction of public monuments.

In Virginia an active letter writing campaign and agitation by the American Legion influenced the General Assembly of 1922 to create by Joint Resolution a commission to investigate and to report by 1924 what action the Commonwealth of Virginia should take “in the matter of erecting a World War Memorial.” The site for the monument, in William Byrd Park at the head of Blanton Avenue, was chosen by Dr.Warren P. Laird, Dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, at the request of the General Assembly.

This site was, in fact, selected over the objections of the Richmond citizenry who preferred a site nearer the Capitol; but after several hearings, the Richmond City Council agreed to provide a deed to the Commonwealth for the Byrd Park site. The city not only deeded the site, but agreed to provide sympathetic landscape treatment for the surrounding areas of the park and to widen the roads approaching and adjacent to the Memorial.

Although a commission to study a design and site for the memorial was formed as early as 1922. political maneuvering and public campaigns altered the initial design and delayed its dedication until 1932. Designed by the firm of Cram and Ferguson, the building exhibits one of the firm’s most opulent examples of the Georgian style, which was chosen expressly because the “Commonwealth of Virginia is the Great Southern exponent of that noble Colonial architecture which has such distinction and essential American quality.”

As a result of a preliminary competition in which architects from the state were invited to submit examples of their work, seven architectural firms were chosen. These seven, as specified in terms of the second stage of the competition, were required to associate with an architect from outside the state and with a sculptor. Drawings were due before the Commission before August 25, 1925, when a Jury of Award 1 would convene to review the projects. This Jury. selected by the competitors themselves, consisted of Harvey Wiley Corbett, the well known skyscraper architect; the sculptor Hermon A. McNeil; and Joseph Hudnut, Dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Virginia and the eventual Dean of the School of Architecture at Harvard. (He was also responsible for bringing Gropius to the United States.)

The Jury selected the design by Marcellus Wright and Paul Cret, as a:

“…compact, well proportioned, composition in which several elements are skillfully related so as to obtain a complete unity of effect. It shows a profound knowledge of architectural form, being in every detail scholarly and competent, it is original and vigorous in its use of accepted forms. It respects the architectural tradition of Virginia, while adding to that tradition fresh and unusual but wholly consistent elements…

…Impressive as is its monumental quality and its graceful decorations, it is, nevertheless, its expression of the spirit of sacrifice and of devotion to duty that make this design notable. The majestic altar and screen dedicated to liberty, the brazier symblic of victory, tempered by thanksgiving, and the solerm sanctuary in which rests the body of the “Unknown Soldier;” these make an ensenble which, when executed, will be a memorable witness to the truest and deepest sentirents that the war has evoked.”

In defiance to plans to build the accepted design, a group of citizens, led by Granville Valentine, a local artist and industrialist, under the title of the Virginia Citizen’s Carillon Committee, mounted an effective campaign to replace the winning design with that of a carillon. Valentine, who had seen and heard the carillons at Andover and Cohasset, Massachusetts, became entranced by the idea that a carillon, whose s und could be broadcast through the “great miracle of the 20th century–the Radio,” would provide a constant reminder of the valor and sacrifice of those who served in World War I, even for those who would never see it. Aided by numerous editorials in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Valentine mounted a propaganda campaign whose success can be measured by the hundreds of letters written to Governors Byrd and Trinkle calling for a carillon as the War Memorial.

In the meantime, work on the Cret/Wright memorial continued apace and on January 19, 1926, the cornerstone of the monument was laid. Valentine, however,was able to marshal1 sufficient support in the legislature so that, on March 25, 1926, the General Assembly approved an act that committed the Commonwealth to construct a carillon-type of monument. Wright and Cret were asked to redesign their memorial and they refused. The Commission, its hands forced by the legislature, then requested that Cram and Ferguson, who had initially submitted a carillon scheme to the competition in association with the Staunton firm of T.J. Collins and Sons, prepare drawings for a carillon. This they did and the work was accepted by the Commission in 1928.

The design of 1928 was substantially fulfilled in the completed work, the only changes being the deletion of an angelic figure from the top of the spire and the replacement of a single grand stair with a pair of curving stairs

Work on the structure began in 1928 and continued in fits and starts (due to fund raising efforts by a consortium of public and private groups) and was completed and dedicated on October 15, 1932. The war museum intended for the base of the toweropenedshortlythereafter. The carillon was originally intended as an instrument that would be played on a regular schedule. The vagaries of municipal and state budgets prevented this from occurring. In the early 1960s, the bells originally cast by John Taylor of Loughborough, England, were recast by the same firm and the war museum was merged with the State War Memorial Museum in Newport’ News, Virginia.

The text above is almost entirely sourced from the registration form from the Virginia War Memorial Carillon application to the National Register of Historic Places (PDF). The original application, dated 1984, is uncredited.